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Keith Olbermann's Johnny Carson Moment

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Keith Olberman

Full disclosure: this writer rarely goes a Monday thru Friday evening without watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann. If I skip a broadcast, it is most likely because of another of Keith's absences, a likely contributor to a reported Countdown ratings drop; mostly due, in my opinion, to too much subbing last December and into early January by that too Democratic Establishment type guy Lawrence O'Donnell. I trust Keith, Larry not so much.

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In fact, I have felt such a debt of loyalty demanding gratitude toward Olbermann ever since the 2006 stuck-in-the-airport Countdown host's epiphany, where he fumed while reading a report of Donald Rumsfeld comparing war critics to Nazi appeasers. Olbermann pondered, then, why somebody in news with a platform didn't take the Bush Defense Secretary to task for spouting such trash, even as it dawned on Keith he had such a soapbox unutilized. That night, Olbermann debuted his now patented "Special Comments" with a six-and-a-half-minute scathing rebuke of Rumsfeld: "The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet."

Had there been no Keith Olbermann, no Countdown, no "Special Comments", I am convinced there would have been no turning away of the radical neocon agenda, no slowing down of the fall of the United States into fascism, no effective counter of MSNBC to the FOXNEWS propaganda machine, no Maddow, no Franken and, certainly, no President Obama.

Olbermann was the first spark that lit the flame that burned down the facade of terror to expose the gangster government underneath. And when Olberman was not "disappeared", but continued to anchor Countdown, thereafter, MSNBC, impressed by Keith's subsequent boost in ratings, began to morph (though still not completely) its FOXNEWS imitation into something more in tune with traditional journalism.

In loving his country more than his job, Keith Olbermann was that legendary one man who changes the world: another Lech Walesa more than a Murrow or a Cronkite; though I am certain historians will one day praise the Countdown host as they do his CBS News predecessors. Perhaps, if the Nobel committee is fair, it will award its prize for journalism to Keith Olbermann for his part in salvaging American democracy and saving the world from the worst of American fanaticism.

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Yet I see dangers ahead if Keith Olbermann fails to recognize that among his many foes, his most dangerous enemy can be himself.

Warning signs are beginning to crowd Olbermann's path of respectability, alarms of the sinkholes ahead. One sign reads "ego" that is as big as O'Reilly's, yet not as acceptable to critical thinkers as is Bill's to his dumbed-down legions. Each criticism in print, radio and cable media (blogs included) seems to cut Keith deeper than it should, make him howl in counter attacks on Countdown against the criticism and the critics. Keith cheapens his credibility when he luxuriates in such righteous indignation: that he can dish it out but can't take it. Countdown becomes all about Keith instead of all about the truth.

When no less than Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show recently mocks Olbermann for a display of sore-losership (over-the-top venom against a winning United States Senate candidate), Keith should see the parody as a warning of his Johnny Carson moment: when the great become a punchline and the beginning of their descent becomes inevitable. Yet, this time Keith did not lash out, though he seemed to struggle before his Countdown audience to admit Stewart had a point. Perhaps, however, that reluctant admission may prove Olbermann is capable of saving himself from himself.

Keith should consider this viewer's list of things he can do to preserve Countdown for years to come:

(1) Be there: vacations happen, emergencies happen, but a night without Keith is like a night without Keith, too often annoys the viewers.

(2) If absence is unavoidable, have a stand in groomed that will understand what Countdown is all about and who can match the spirit of the host as closely as possible. In other words, dump O'Donnell. Whatever happened to Alison Stewart? She always made Olbermann absences easier to accept.

(3) Go into O'Reilly withdrawal therapy. Ignore O'Reilly. Taunting O'Reilly only promotes The Factor at the expense of Countdown

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(4) Dump the "Quick Comments". They cheapen "Special Comments". I remember the pressure of MSNBC management to get Keith to deliver his "Special Comments" more often due to the instant rating boosts the comments gave Countdown. Olbermann wisely declined to do so to preserve the "get out the popcorn" enthusiasm of his viewers. MSNBC and Keith must remember what happened when game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire went from weekly to nightly. Comments are best served sparingly, not quickly.

Finally, Mr. Olbermann, you need not give in to your insecurities by defending yourself. Your audience will continue to do that for you.


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Retired, Robert Arend was president of an AFSCME local from 1997-2007.

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